When Disney World hosted the July 4th citizenship ceremony for 1,000 people, American culture collided once again with government, politics and media. So why did the commercialization of naturalization feel so unnatural?
The most striking photo-op on July 4th wasn't fireworks, picnics or parades. It was the gathering of 1,000 soon-to-be United States citizens gathered at Disney World in Orlando. The site, devoted to Americana, fantasy and make-believe, was the setting for this Independence Day's big naturalization ceremony.
It's the first time Disney World played host. President Bush was beamed in to welcome these new Americans. Cuban-American musician Gloria Estefan sang the national anthem and country western's Lee Greenwood sang "God Bless America." It is a small world after all.
So why does the commercialization of naturalization feel so unnatural? Disney has a push-pull relationship in America that goes back over a half century. Disney reflects the yearning for yester-year among us. But it also provides a cheap stereotype for what it means to be an American. Hosting the July 4th ceremony was a coup for Disney's PR machine, the White House or a combination of both.
Disney and Bush did what they could to capitalize on the American Dream for these new citizens. With immigration reform dead for the foreseeable future, Bush needed a place to re-iterate the American Dream without getting too close to these new Americans. The ceremony took place outside the Cinderella Castle. Disney Resort president Meg Crofton summed up the corporate connection to the flag. "What better day than Independence Day to celebrate the naturalization of 1,000 new American citizens. And what better place than Disney World, where dreams come true every day of the year. We are honored to participate as America bestows its greatest gift -- the gift of citizenship."
The push-pull America has with Disney is also reflected in the way Disney has been part of American politics. Michael Moore knows this all too well. Disney had its Miramax Films unit halt distribution of Moore's "Fahrenheit 911," the award-winning film critical of the Bush Administration's handling of affairs before and after the September 11th attacks.
Disney has also been part of the country's immigration debate, both as a public citizen and major employer. In June, Disney the Citizen hosted Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as they spoke before National Latino officials gathering just days after the immigration bill failed in the Senate. In 1993, Disney the Employer was the target of an INS probe that leveled fines close to $400,000, at the time the largest in California history. Disney was accused of 1156 violations when investigators tried examining more than 6,000 employee files at Disneyland. The INS said 55 workers were fired. Disney said just 5 of them had improper documentation.
But Disney's history with who belongs in America and who doesn't belong dates back to the McCarthy era. In October 1947, Walt Disney himself testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Here is a transcript of part of that testimony.
Question: "Do you have any people in your studio at the present time that you believe are Communist or Fascist, employed there?"
Disney: "No; at the present time I feel that everybody in my studio is one-hundred-percent American."
Back then, coming out of World War II and facing the start of the Cold War and Red Scare, Disney was a movie maker and not yet a theme park owner. Movies were the propaganda tool of the world. Disney knew a "100% American" studio was reflecting what government wanted to hear and what many Americans wanted to be re-assured. America, and American propaganda tools, was all American. The start of baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. End of story.
Today, Disney's embrace of other cultures and new immigrants is a safe marketing tool even with the immigration debate. Disney's embrace of new Americans puts the company on the side of legal immigrants. It also portrays the company as a present-day Statue of Liberty by welcoming the masses, even if it's just 1000 pre-chosen people on a national holiday.
There are many things that make up a culture and no one can predict how fast a culture can change. Immigration has been a hot debate for more than a year. Disney either wants to truly lead the cultural revolution to capitalize on changing demographics for both its theme parks and movie audiences. Or it just wants to stay close enough to government, so government doesn't spend as much time staying close to Disney's business.